We’ve all heard the phrase before: 9/11 changed everything. Over the course of 102 minutes, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon seemed to wake the free world up from a happy daydream – a decade-long doze that began with the fall of communism and continued through the dot-com economic boom. We thought Western democracy was history’s final answer. We thought wrong.
But the tragedy of September 11, 2001 isn’t the only reason we yearn for a time the Twin Towers still stood. The decade before everything changed was alluring in myriad ways that 9/11 only punctuated. Here’s a few reasons why 90s nostalgia is so widespread and worthwhile.
10 A Dominant Decade
The 90s were essentially bookended by the fall of structural and symbolic behemoths: the Iron Curtain and the Twin Towers. In between was the mesmerizing myth of the “end of history” – the notion that, given Western Civilization’s triumph in the Cold War, free-market democracies would be the permanently predominant form of governance. The world was ours for the making.
What a remarkable run it was. When the Berlin Wall was breached starting in November 1989, a Western winning streak began that lasted through the ensuing decade. First, allied forces cut through Saddam Hussein’s vaunted Republican Guard in mere days, freeing Kuwait. Then the West developed and proliferated the first new mass medium since the advent of television; the Internet fueled a booming peacetime economy worthy of the West’s view from Earth’s figurative mountaintops.
Thinking oceans would buffer America from the world’s last real trouble spot, the Middle East, President Clinton balked at an opportunity to assassinate an up-and-coming terrorism financier named Osama bin Laden. Upon assuming office in early 2001, George W. Bush ignored urgently-worded warnings about a pending US attack being planned by bin Laden’s organization, al Qaeda.
We paid for our hubris with 3,000 lives and two destructive, quagmire wars that threw the Western world’s illusion of invincibility into history’s trash heap.
9 Polarized? Puh-lease
9/11 brought the free world together in mourning and Americans – whatever their political affiliation – together in patriotism and righteous purpose. Polls taken in the attacks’ immediate aftermath placed President George W. Bush’s approval rating at 90%. Considering a month-long legal battle for the White House – the 2000 Florida recount – had transpired less than a year earlier, that’s truly remarkable.
Nearly two decades later, it’s safe to say that 9/11 didn’t unite liberals and conservatives so much as it temporary dissolved differences that simply weren’t that wide. Pre-9/11, what we saw as political polarization now seems innocent.
In the US, the 90s began with George H.W. Bush as president – a war hero who steered the country through the Persian Gulf conflict and diplomatically refused to gloat when the Soviet Union collapsed. To counteract a rising deficit, he then raised taxes as a Republican, likely sacrificing a second term. His successor, Bill Clinton, was a Democrat who signed tough-on-crime mandatory-sentencing drug laws, and repealed a longstanding law against limiting risky investments by traditional banks – a free-market free-for-all that led directly to the 2008 financial crisis. Finally, the policy differences between 2000 Election candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush were laughably minor compared to this year’s race.
Similar centrism played out elsewhere. With an economy driven by the dot-com boom and no major military conflicts, the differences between, say, Conservative Prime Minister John Major and his Labour Party successor, Tony Blair, seem quaint given England’s heated post-Brexit polarization.
9/11 brought political rivals together because their differences were reconcilable. A solid argument can be made that this is no longer the case.
8 Global Warming Wasn’t a Hot Topic Yet
The 90s may end up being the final decade that humanity doesn’t feel the Sword of Damocles dangling over its collective neck.
The Soviet Union’s demise removed the specter of nuclear war from everyday life, with schools across the Western world retiring duck and cover instructional cartoons. 9/11, of course, would teach us that adversaries could effectively substitute jet fuel for enriched uranium – and, unlike with nukes, obtain and deploy it using standard box-cutters.
Sandwiched between communism and terrorism, the non-combative 90s were, coincidentally, also the last full decade when we didn’t realize the true gravity of global warming. Not that we were clueless: advances in computer modeling during the 90s led scientists to declare a near-consensus regarding greenhouse emissions’ and their effects. We just didn’t know it would become this urgent this fast.
Two decades later, we set high temperature records with regularity, heat-trapping carbon dioxide is more concentrated than it’s been in three million years, and life-sustaining coral reefs are being bleached en masse.
During a decade of optimism, ignorance was bliss and time seemed on our side. We’re in a very different place today.
7 The Nanny State Was Still in Its Infancy
On March 28, 2003, at about 11:55pm, I lit a cigarette, did a shot of cheap whiskey and chased it with a swig of even cheaper beer. I extinguished my smoke as the entire bar counted down, New Year’s Eve-style, to midnight. The bartender then cleared the ashtrays . . . forever. My beloved New York City had banned smoking in bars in the latest sign of its quickly-fading trademark grittiness. Another one bites the dus . . . uh, ashes.
NYC’s smoking ban was a questionably coincidental civic safety microcosm of the nanny state ushered in by 9/11. Peacocking their willingness to do anything in the name of security, Western political leaders passed sweeping new surveillance laws. The result was predictable: a decade after the USA’s controversial Patriot Act, it wasn’t just the government tracking and tapping our cell phones, but corporations, marketers and potential employers as well.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, eventually, monopolistic online companies would be eavesdropping our every move to serve up customized crap for us to buy. Perhaps not. Here, the pre-9/11 era was quaint by circumstance, as it was a time when data wasn’t as all-permeating and, as such, couldn’t be weaponized as effectively.
9/11 ended our innocence; its aftermath ended our privacy – which leads directly to the next entry.
6 Big Brother Wasn’t Watching
. . . at least not always. In the years since 9/11, our increasingly nonexistent data privacy has been compounded by our equally nonexistent physical privacy.
The Brits are the most incessantly voyeuristic: The United Kingdom has one closed circuit television (CCTV) for every 11 citizens. In London alone there are more than 625,000 CCTV cameras, creating sizable swaths where getting out of range of one public camera means coming into range of another. There is literally nowhere to hide.
Not to be outdone in the race for China-level citizenry surveillance, officials in New York want to know not only where we are but where we’re going. The rationale for such surveillance is often unconvincing: recently, the city launched initiatives that track drivers and passengers entering and leaving the city, as well as where taxis and ride-hailing services pick up and drop off. The stated reason was – no joke – preventing driver fatigue.
Here again, the narrowing of privacy coincides with both the post-9/11 security-first mindset and the advancement of digital tracking and HD camera technology. The former is excuse, the latter execution.
5 Security Was Simpler
OK, perhaps a little TOO simple. Why on Earth the cockpit doors of giant, jet-fuel-laden commercial airliners were EVER left unsecured is beyond comprehension.
Still, it took the confluence of a well-funded mass-suicide mission and stunning point-of-entry security screw-ups to bring 9/11 to fruition. Nineteen hijackers, many of whom barely spoke English, were willing to sacrifice their lives, with four able to attend flight schools without scrutiny . . . despite showing no interest in learning how to land. Red flag, guys.
On the day of the attack, a ticket agent nearly detained ringleader Mohamed Atta out of suspicion of terrorism. Then, incompetent airline security workers managed to allow men with boxcutters – which, contrary to what many believe, were NOT allowed prior to 9/11 – onto the doomed planes.
The West’s great reckoning with its naïve 90s sense of safety, then, took cascading events of kamikaze determination and official dumbass-edness to become reality. The simpler, softer security we experienced was ALMOST enough to prevent the worst terrorist attack in modern history.
And then . . . the inevitable overcompensation. Airport security has gone from being slightly too lax to scrutinizing breastmilk and patting down a 96-year-old woman in a wheelchair. Part of 90s nostalgia is longing for a time when we didn’t need to get half nude in public to take a vacation.
4 Our Final Shared Experience?
If 9/11 happened this coming September 11 instead of 2001, we wouldn’t have both eyes glued to TVs . . . because we’d have one on our social media feeds. We’d be macabre witnesses to Facebook posts from trapped office workers, evacuees live-Tweeting their descent to hopeful safety and, likely, live-stream suicides as desperate, doomed jumpers recorded their final ten-second plummet.
But since 9/11 occurred three years before Facebook and six before the iPhone, we instead got what may end up being our final worldwide shared experience: billions around the globe transfixed to TVs broadcasting a smoking tower, the second plane’s live-on-air impact, the Pentagon aflame. And then . . . the collapses, the first breathtakingly surprising, the latter terrifyingly anticipated.
Here again, 9/11 is an unintentional demarcation line. Though a new medium, the Internet, proliferated during the 90s, it hadn’t yet given everyday people – bystanders, soon-to-be-victims trapped on high floors, passengers in hijacked planes – the sort of instant mass-megaphone social media provides. As such, the horror was a more collective experience.
However, though we were spared the horror of hundreds providing running accounts of their deaths, social media may have helped folks trapped in the South Tower learn of something only a handful discovered: a passable staircase to safety (those in the North Tower were doomed regardless, as no clear stairway existed post-impact).
3 We Were More Prepared to Save Ourselves
Another interesting thing that would have happened if 9/11 occurred today rather than two decades ago: more people would die. Because even if all things were equal – air travel rules, tower occupancy, time and day of attack – the one thing that wouldn’t be equal is our waistlines.
Watching video of people evacuating the Twin Towers – including those fleeing the soot-filled, all-encompassing dust cloud spreading rapidly from the imploded buildings – doesn’t just turn back the clock, it turns back the scale. It’s not a stretch to say that, had we had today’s obesity numbers in 2001, more people would have perished. Heart attacks descending dozens of flights of stairs and an inability to run from the area post-collapse are just two scenarios that would have upped the death toll.
Obesity figures from the early 90s are even more glaring: a state-by-state analysis shows obesity in America doubling, tripling and even quadrupling over the last three decades.
In 2020, of course, dying from obesity is less about catching our breath than taking a breath at all. were Americans and other Westerners in better physical shape, the death toll from the coronavirus wouldn’t be nearly high. That’s not politicizing a pandemic; it’s just cold, hard fat . . . uh, fact.
2 The Internet Wasn’t a Wasteland Yet
Sure, the 90s had interpersonal interactions online. Message boards and chat rooms were helping hobbyists and like-minded people congregate virtually from the net’s inception. I met my first serious girlfriend through America Online, using the decade’s most prolific, if not successful, pickup line: “A/S/L?” (“Age/Sex/Location?)
Since then, society has seemingly devolved in direct association with cyber-technology’s evolution. High-speed Internet access brought the ability to stream videos, which we’ve mostly used for porn and pets. Facebook made finding like-minded morons even easier, with algorithm-customized news feeds and niche groups fueling confirmation bias and mass misinformation. Then Twitter came along, allowing us to rage Tweet at anyone about anything.
The 90s’ Internet innocence – and its uncharted promise of a new medium – evokes nostalgia given what the world wide web has become: a shitshow that is making us stupider. Conspiracy theorists have gone mainstream, with QAnon – an anonymous alleged government insider proposing the theory that President Trump has been sent to dislodge a vast deep-state network of child sex traffickers – claiming millions of devotees.
Meanwhile, radical purity-test snowflakes drown out and cancel anyone committing a perceived micro-aggression, with pusillanimous media members and politicians cowering in fear of an online PC Wokerati capable of ending careers. A big part of 90s nostalgia is the impossible wish of a dot-com do-over.
1 New York Has Changed Dramatically . . . for the Worse
Recently, Jerry Seinfeld wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times disparaging those who’ve pronounced New York City dead. Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers have been fleeing the densely populated city for fear of contracting COVID-19, leading to eerily deserted streets.
But coronavirus didn’t kill NYC. Hyper-gentrification did. In “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul,” Jeremiah Moss details the city’s dwindling grittiness, guttiness and uniqueness during his 25-plus years living there, starting in the early 90s. (Moss also details the city’s diminishing appeal with a blog that reads like a long-running obituary.)
The comparisons Moss draws are made more stark by their starting point: the early 90s were a truly special time in NYC’s history. The city had emerged from the crime-infested 70s and crack-epidemic 80s to become a safe yet exciting place with a “good grit” feel to it. Elegance on Park Ave, dive bars on the Lower East Side and the delicious dinginess of Chinatown restaurants . . . New York in the 90s blended the upscale and the seedy like nowhere else in America.
It didn’t last. As rents skyrocketed, ethnic neighborhoods once thriving with traditional restaurants became white-bread enclaves. Mom and pop shops sold out to sterile national brands, and independent bodegas became Starbucks and 7-11s. Today’s New York is too expensive for anyone except the rich, and too boring for anyone except wide-eyed tourists from Iowa.